Martha Rofheart (1917-1990) was an American author of historical fiction who wrote several novels on subjects as diverse as Cleopatra (The Alexandrian), Henry V (Fortune Made His Sword) and the Greek poet, Sappho (Burning Sappho). Lionheart, her 1981 novel on England’s King Richard I, is the first of her books that I’ve read and although I had one or two problems with it, I did enjoy it and am looking forward to trying her others.
The story of Richard I, known as the Lionheart, is told from the perspectives of not only Richard himself, but five other people who each played a significant role in his life: his mistress, Blondelza; his mercenary captain, Mercadier; his mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine; his wife, Berengaria of Navarre; and his foster-brother and scribe, Alexander. All of these people really existed, apart from Blondelza, who is fictitious, and each of them is given their own section of the book in which to relate their own version of events and to share with us their personal opinion of Richard as a man and as a king.
With six different characters each telling their side of the story, I would have liked their narrative voices to have sounded more distinctive, but they did all seem to blend together, the exceptions being Richard (a child during most of the first section of the novel), and his mother, Eleanor. I have read about Eleanor and Richard recently, in Elizabeth Chadwick’s The Winter Crown, and it was good to read another author’s interpretation of the same characters. The portrayal of Richard here is balanced and well-developed, with each narrator throwing more light on a different aspect of his personality. He is shown to be a complex man, capable of being selfish and inconsiderate, but also courageous, kind-hearted and down to earth.
I’m not sure how I feel about the character of Blondelza, Richard’s mistress. As most of the other characters are real historical figures and the plot of the novel closely follows historical fact, it doesn’t seem quite right for an entirely fictional character to be given such a prominent role in the story. On the other hand, Richard did have an illegitimate son (Philip of Cognac) by an unidentified woman, so there’s plenty of scope there for an author to fill in the gaps, which is just what Martha Rofheart has done. And Blondelza, being a glee-maiden (a female poet or minstrel), is an interesting character to read about, fictional or not!
All of the major events of Richard’s life and reign are covered in the novel, from his childhood and his rebellion (with his brothers) against his father, Henry II, to his meeting with and marriage to Berengaria and, of course, his time on crusade. Obviously the crusades were of huge importance to Richard and it’s understandable that Rofheart goes into a lot of detail in describing them, but I did find that this section of the book (narrated by the monk Alexander) really started to drag, and it didn’t help that it was twice the length of any of the other sections.
Still, this was an enjoyable novel overall and I feel that I learned a lot about not only the life of Richard the Lionheart, but also medieval life in general. I was particularly intrigued by the descriptions of the Courts of Love in Poitiers and the tasks which must be carried out by a knight who wished to prove his love for his lady. Now that I’ve had my first introduction to Martha Rofheart’s writing I’m definitely planning to read her other books, all of which sound interesting.
Thanks to Endeavour Press for providing a review copy via NetGalley.